“I’m looking for a church that is just like me.”
Few people would say it quite so crassly, but the sentiment is commonplace. When visitors come to Mentone, and when people join the church and when others leave, too often the issue has to do with finding a church that has the right fit. By which people mean, it’s just like me. I need a church that provides the ministries I am looking for and with people I can identify with and where the style reflects my personal preferences.
Both as a pastor of a church and as a church member, I’m aware that finding a church that mirrors my own cultural and personality preferences isn’t an easy task. There are not many churches in Melbourne where I can find fellow opera listening, cricket watching, Carlton supporting, history loving, fine food eating, Rothko admiring, Christians. It’s not that I’m a cultural snob as such, but that everyone else is a philistine (don’t be offended, that’s a joke…sort of!).
There are good reasons for joining and leaving a church, and not so good reasons. There are sad reasons and sinful reasons. But among the most common that I hear relates to what I’m calling a spiritualised version of natural selection.
I’ve given up trying to recall all the times’ someone has said to me, ‘Murray, there are not enough young families at ‘your’ church’. Or, there are too many children. Or. the youth group is too small. Or, there are not enough people my age. Or, where are all the elderly people? Or, the Church is too large….too small. The music is too new….too traditional. No doubt, you’ve also heard all these reasons, and perhaps you’ve used them yourself. The problem is, these categories don’t come to us from the Scriptures, but from the world around us.
Why do we place so much value on finding people our own age or people who share our social preferences? On one level, it is natural for us to congregate with people like ourselves. Uni students are naturally drawn toward other uni students. Families with children find it easy to mix with other families who have children. None of this is wrong as such, but the Gospel brings together people not on the basis of natural and intuitive networks but on the basis of a supernatural work of God’s Spirit in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If we dig a little deeper into the psyche behind natural selection, we discover that there is something rather insidious about choosing a church based on natural selection rather than criteria set by the Gospel of reconciliation.
The Bible reveals a vision for God’s church that is better and is the perfect counterpoint to the monotonous song that remain no.1 on the Aussie charts. One of God’s goals through the Gospel is to bring together people who have nothing in common and yet in Christ share everything.
At the time when Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, the great cultural divide was between Jews and Gentiles. Paul reminded them of who it is that brought them together,
“remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”
To the Galatians the Apostle said,
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:18)
God didn’t choose us according to the rules of natural selection, but according to supernatural grace. When we judge our church according to the whim of natural selection we are cutting against the very means by which a church is formed and grows.
In contrast, the early churches consisted of an array of people from different cultures and classes. The fact that rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile, alike were members of churches, serving one another in love, was one of the realities that made the church attractive to surrounding people. Here was a place where status didn’t matter, and where otherwise unlike people found the deepest and most stable bond that can be had in this world.
There are of course some criteria that do matter when it comes to joining a church and remaining in that Church. For example, theology. There needs to be sufficient theological alignment, otherwise, you’ve already set the trajectory for an unhappy ending. Language is another important factor. It’s difficult to talk and listen and build relationships when you don’t share the same tongue. And we mustn’t neglect location. If you’re travelling 40 minutes each way to Church on a Sunday, how involved can you be in the life and health of that Church? Are you prepared to drive that distance every week, on Sundays and for a midweek Bible study? Are your neighbours and friends (who presumably live near your home and whom you’re inviting to church) also prepared to travel that distance? Perhaps you should find a local church or be prepared to move closer to the church that you have covenanted to join.
When we allow the Bible’s vision of Church to inform and transform our own agendas and expectations, the gains are immeasurable. We begin building a church on grace, not on personal gain. We prove to the world that Christ is true and that he is enough. We demonstrate the breadth and beauty of Gospel reconciliation.
So long as we live by the insatiable individualism that is eating away at our culture, we will diminish the beauty of the church, we will deny the power of the gospel, and we hamstring Gospel centred grace and growth. To be blunt, we will walk away from brothers and sisters for the simple reason, they are not quite like us
When Susan and I were living in London we joined a small group made up of members from the church we were attending. At 23 years of age, I was the youngest in the group. The eldest was well over 80. Each week we met in someone’s living room, 12 people from very different walks of life: students, workers, retirees, singles and married, children and no children. The fact that we had little in common with other members of the group didn’t detract from the group. The opposite was true. Together we had Christ and this unity in Christ was enough Jesus. Around Christ, we learned to love and encourage one another. That’s what the Gospel does. It brings people together who in other spheres of life would never connect let alone build friendship.
While it may be counter-intuitive, by joining a church where you are perhaps one of only a handful of under 25s or the only family, you may well become that new branch whom God uses to bring more young adults or more families into the church. Instead of try and walk out, why not trust and commit?
Finding a church filled with people like me is a myth that we need to dispell. As an individual who has his own social preferences, I understand the pull to find people with whom we have many things in common. These patterns of socialising can be a good from God and therefore to be enjoyed, but they ought not to be the criteria upon which we join or leave a church.
Instead of looking for a church that is like me (or like you), let’s join and serve churches that look like Jesus and want to become more like Him.